Eight low-carbon energy scenarios: Similar paths, and one big gap

Eight low-carbon energy scenarios: Similar paths, and one big gap

The Trottier Energy Futures Project (TEFP) found a lot of similarities, a few differences and one almost universal gap in its study of eight national scenarios of a low-carbon energy future.

The TEFP’s new report, Low-Carbon Energy Futures: A Review of National Scenarios, summarizes research from eight wealthy, industrialized, mostly urbanized economies: Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. The common themes relate to four factors—greatly increased energy efficiency, wider electrification of energy end uses, decarbonization of electricity and greater use of bioenergy—that are cornerstones of most low-carbon futures.

The research gap we found was in the opportunity to get the amenities we need and want, while making less intensive use of energy services to deliver them.

Fuel and electricity consumption is driven by demand for energy services like heat, mobility, goods movement and information processing. That demand, in turn, is an expression of the more fundamental need for comfort, good health, security and happiness. Changes in these factors have a huge impact on energy demand and GHG emissions, and will receive careful attention as the Trottier Project develops its own scenarios for Canada’s low-carbon energy future.

Several of the low-carbon scenarios included some degree of “what if” analysis to determine how changes in the level and pattern of energy services demand could affect GHG emissions. But most of the work assumed that past levels and patterns of energy service demand would continue into the future, even though the underlying drivers of energy services demand could give us our best chance of cutting Canada’s GHG emissions by 80 per cent by 2050.

Recurring Themes

The eight studies mixed and matched elements of several low-carbon solutions. Most or all of the scenarios:

  • Depended on significant gains in energy efficiency
  • Relied more heavily on electricity for heating, personal transportation and some industrial applications
  • Decarbonized the electricity supply, using some mix of hydroelectric, nuclear, wind, geothermal, photovoltaic, biomass, wave and tidal energy
  • Turned to biomass to supply 17 to 41 per cent of primary energy.

In the transition to renewable electricity, most of the studies relied primarily on hydroelectric power and wind. The U.S. study, in particular, showed major contributions from solar photovoltaic and concentrated solar power plants by 2050.

The studies from France, Sweden, the U.K. and the U.S. included some scenarios with a continuing role for nuclear power. They generally suggested a choice between reliance on nuclear and a shift toward energy efficiency and renewable energy, with some authors expressing a clear preference for efficiency and renewables. Hydrogen was crowded out of the short- and medium-term scenarios by electrification, decarbonization and biofuels, but took on a significant role in some of the studies as they approached 2050. Several of the national scenarios included carbon capture and storage, but due to uncertainties about costs and performance, CCS was generally seen as a hedge in the event that fossil fuels can’t be phased out through efficiency and carbon-free alternatives.

What makes Canada different

Of the eight countries in the study, Canada has the largest geography, one of the smallest populations and among the coldest climates. It’s also the only net exporter of petroleum. In the end, the structure of our economy may be a more formidable low-carbon challenge than our location or outdoor temperature.

Click here to download a copy of Low-Carbon Energy Futures: A Review of National Scenarios.

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